Zardari returns to flood-stricken Pakistan to face mounting criticism

President accused of failing to respond to country's worst-ever natural disaster as rising waters continue to cause devastation

President Asif Ali Zardari finally returned to his ravaged country to face a barrage of criticism while thousands of people were evacuated from a major city in Pakistan's heartland as flood waters continued to rise.

The country's leader, under fire for failing to cancel an overseas trip while more than 14 million of his countrymen struggled to deal with the devastating waters, flew into Karachi and was due to return to the capital, Islamabad, later today.

There he will face renewed criticism over his failure seemingly to grasp the scale of the crisis – Pakistan's worst-ever natural disaster.

It is from this saturated heartland that Mr Zardari and the civilian authorities face the most intense criticism for failing to do more. Yesterday, thousands of people fled from the city of Muzaffargarh in Punjab province after officials issued flood warnings as the swollen Chenab river continued to rise.

"It's really bad, horrendous," Rashid Javed, a spokesman for the charity Plan International, whose partners are working to help people in the Muzaffargarh area, told The Independent. "In addition to all the water from the north-west, we have had three days of torrential rain. Most of the camps that have been set up for people have been moved to higher ground."

Reports said the usually busy city of 250,000 people, located in the breadbasket of the nation, was yesterday largely deserted – large numbers left after warnings were issued the previous evening.

A number of men stayed behind to guard homes and businesses. "There is no doubt that our city is almost empty now," Mohammed Saleem, a shop owner who sent his wife and children to Multan, told the Associated Press.

The city's hospital said it was suffering from staff shortages because so many doctors and other workers had decided to leave before floods struck, and workmen had placed sandbags around the facility in anticipation of damage. While it was still uncertain last night whether the rising waters would engulf the town, people said they were not taking any chances.

Almost two weeks after the worst floods in more than 80 years started to sweep through north-west Pakistan, there appears little let-up. While the waters have receded in some places, elsewhere they have continued to rise. Several UN bodies have admitted the scale of the disaster has made it difficult to respond adequately, not just for the government and the armed forces, but for aid groups as well.

"Our staff in Pakistan say the situation is among the most difficult they have faced. Thousands of villages and towns in low-lying areas have not seen flooding on this scale in generations," said a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

"[The government] puts the number of homes destroyed or damaged at more than 300,000, with more than 14,000 cattle having perished and 2.6 million acres of crop-land under water. So far, some 1,600 people have been killed, but many millions of Pakistanis and Afghan refugees have been affected."

Stephane Lobjois, of the charity Handicap International, said rescuers were travelling to disabled people's homes by foot to deliver emergency supplies. "Not even donkeys can reach – only men," he said. The UN has said the aid response needed to be scaled up "massively" and that it was working on a response plan that would require hundreds of millions of dollars in international assistance.

A spokeswoman for Mr Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) said one of his first tasks was to meet the chief ministers of the provinces to draw up a rehabilitation programme.

Yet in Karachi, Mr Zardari may have been distracted as the fallout from his Europe visit sparked a confrontation between the PPP and Geo News, the television news channel. Hundreds of PPP supporters gathered outside Geo's headquarters in the city, torching newspapers and tyres, chanting angry slogans and hurling stones and shoes.

The clash stemmed from the party's outrage over coverage of a protestor's attempt to strike Mr Zardari with his shoes at a rally in Birmingham. While the shoes missed, the mere attempt set off blanket coverage, with Geo and other channels drawing wry comparisons with former US President George Bush's narrow escape in Baghdad.

The PPP responded with fury and Geo's broadcasts have been shut off in Karachi.

Media view: 'Duration of the tour highlighted his insensitivity'

The insensitivity to the mounting suffering at home was thrown into sharper relief by the long duration of Mr Zardari's tour. Even as swelling rivers pushed the number of people affected by the calamity to several million, the president carried on with a visit that had no urgent purpose.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi in 'The News'

Surely the situation demanded Mr Zardari's presence in the country. True, there is little he could personally have done to improve things. But just as Bush and Obama learnt, it is the impression of being in charge that is important. And while it might have diverted important helicopter capacity, a visit to the flood-affected areas by the president might have cheered up displaced families, while encouraging those engaged in relief work.

Irfan Husain, 'Dawn'

To say Mr Zardari's visit to Britain was controversial would be putting it mildly. He was vilified by both the national and international media and to add insult to injury, the shoe-throwing incident in Birmingham served as the icing on the cake.

Editorial, 'Daily Times'

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own